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A race for legitimacy: China and climate change leadership

Sensemaking / A race for legitimacy: China and climate change leadership

What are the obstacles to China grasping the baton?

By George Harding-Rolls / 10 Aug 2017

The decision by US President Donald Trump to pull out of the Paris Agreement had two immediate effects. The first was the weakening of US standing in climate leadership, prompting an international outcry from citizens, businesses and world leaders. The second was the suddenly empty seat at the helm of climate leadership – a vacuum it has been speculated and even assumed that China will fill.

But ‘Green China’ evangelists should pause before jumping to conclusions. The marathon in the course of which a country can take climate change leadership is fraught with obstacles, in particular for the state that remains the world’s biggest polluter, with deeply rooted environmental and social problems throughout the country.

Each country’s action on climate change can be seen as the sum of many different actors, from the role of business and government to market forces and citizen action. A team, in other words, much like in a relay race, whose combined efforts result in where they place. At Forum for the Future, we often describe climate change leadership as a race to the top. So, what do the course and contestants look like in this race? To understand better China’s potential as a climate leader, let’s see how it measures up to its main competitor.

Team USA – a well trained and experienced group of athletes who stood out in the qualifiers. Fewer hurdles lie on the track of team US, but a recent change of coach and infighting has left them in disarray. The head coach is signalling that the US team captain should pull out but other teammates want to continue apace. Confused and uncoordinated, team US is lagging behind.

Team China – An outwardly strong and unified team equipped with the latest high-tech kit and training regime, and with buckets of sponsorship. After a strong pep-talk from Coach Xi, the captain is fired up and ready to carry the weight of her country’s international reputation on her shoulders. From the outside, the rest of the team look united, some are clearly in it for commercial reasons, and there has been talk of some members sabotaging other teams’ efforts (see obstacle four). Team China will need discipline and focus; the track ahead is positively heaving with obstacles, some of which look almost insurmountable.  

As this new heat begins what are the odds on China taking the lead? It’s clear it’s not simply a case of Team China taking the leadership baton from Team USA. There are many obstacles standing in the way. How and whether China can overcome them will determine how they tackle the following obstacles:


Obstacle one: Air pollution

The air pollution crisis brought the consequences of China’s rapid industrialisation and environmental gambling into contact with the average citizen for the first time. Minister for Environmental Protection, Chen Jining likened the public response to air pollution to that of Silent Spring (Rachel Carson’s book which triggered a huge increase in environmental awareness in the 1960s) in the anger and fear that it been unleashed, mainly through social media. This in turn has challenged and changed how public sentiment is heard and interpreted by the Chinese government, demonstrating that political legitimacy and compliance won through economic growth can no longer be relied on if it sacrifices the health of citizens.

So why is air pollution still an obstacle? Well, despite action to tackle it, the scale of China’s air quality crisis is vast. The average concentration of fine particulates in most parts of China exceeds WHO limits by more than 8 times. Team China has to pick its battles – plough effort and investment into clean air in China and mitigate one of its citizens’ top concerns or uphold big, international commitment and come under scrutiny on the global stage by taking the helm. Which would you choose?  


Obstacle two: Water scarcity and pollution

In 1999 Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao cited water shortage as a threat to “the survival of the Chinese nation.” China’s rapid, unsustainable development has put extraordinary pressures on freshwater resources, and much of what remains is often polluted by heavy industry. As climate change kicks in, the issue can only get more pressing, the desperate times already being met with desperate measures to quench the thirst of dry North China. For example, the titanic South-to-North Water Diversion, with the capacity to transport 25 billion cubic meters of water per year (equivalent to an olympic swimming pool of water every hour), which channels water from the wet southern provinces to the parched, over-populated, over-developed north.

This is a huge threat to the Chinese government’s legitimacy – if you can’t provide basic clean water to the nation, your ability and right to rule is also called into question. Actively tackling this threat will take priority over aspirations to take the helm of international climate change leadership.

Obstacle three: Food security

Poisoned milk powder, cooking oil siphoned from the sewers, expired meat sold as fresh, dumplings laced with insecticide – just a few of the recent food safety scandals to plague China. Issues of food safety are so rife that the central government has separate farms to supply safe food to its leaders, and Chinese people are scared and angry, listing it as a top concern. The causes, such as lack of transparency and desire for quick profit, are complex enough problems as it stands, and that’s before you factor in a changing climate, soil degradation, over-reliance on chemicals, ecological destruction and lack of industry regulation all threatening the country’s ability to produce enough food.  

As with water and air pollution, unresolved issues of food security are a threat to the legitimacy of the Chinese government. This is a gargantuan internal obstacle China must overcome before it can take the lead.


Obstacle four: Émissions sans frontières

We see stories every day of the clean energy revolution happening in China. From government plans to invest 2.5 trillion yuan in renewables and scrapping coal plants left, right and centre, to building titanic solar farms – these are all cases for optimism. There’s a dirty side to this story, though. For the past 20 years, Chinese banks have almost matched World Bank levels of funding for global energy infrastructure, to the tune of more than $160 billion. Only a small fraction of that has been renewables. The remaining investment – nearly 80% – has been in coal, oil extraction, and the mining of raw materials. These Chinese-backed efforts abroad, as well as overproduction and huge exports of fossil fuels, could cancel out cumulative efforts at home to move towards clean alternatives.

In this way, China are sabotaging the efforts of other teams, in particular developing countries who rely heavily on Chinese infrastructure investment, and reducing their potential to show true climate leadership.  


Obstacle five: Motivation

Any test of endurance requires willpower and single-minded determination. So despite the obstacles, does team China actually have the desire to take the lead? President Xi Jinping’s speech at Davos, along with other comments from top officials would suggest so, but as ever this is a team sport. For the US, years of strong leadership had helped to get multiple team members pushing for the same goal. For China’s climate leadership relay team to succeed, it also requires each member of the team to race for the same goal and pull their own weight – government, citizens, industry, business et al. – a coordinated effort that hasn’t quite materialised in full, despite the promising signs of China cornering the EV and renewables manufacturing markets.



This race is a direct test of China’s resolve. Its gargantuan obstacles are intractable and interconnected and it is by no means certain that China will up the pace and grasp the baton left by the US. With that leadership comes a responsibility to set the agenda and a position of scrutiny on the international stage that China has traditionally shied away from. China’s domestic environmental problems and looming political and social tremors are enough to prevent it making any bold, international commitments while it gets its own house in order.

But – and I cannot emphasise this point enough – if you can’t maintain the nation’s food, energy and water systems, and ensure clean air to breathe, you can’t maintain internal stability or political legitimacy. In order to maintain the nation’s food, energy, water and clean air, you have to mitigate the threat of climate change, and you’ll never be able to do that without stepping up and cooperating internationally.

In short, China has very little choice about whether or not to internationally cooperate to mitigate climate change. The crucial question is whether this amounts to leadership, and how far and how fast they’re willing to move while they sort through a myriad of domestic environmental challenges. Their response will directly impact how we as a global community meet the threat of climate change, and whether we’re proactively led from the front, or reactively fighting fires as they inevitably emerge.  





What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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